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The Redbud City: Bandit Underhill shot and seized

Clyde Wooldridge
Contributing writer
This photo shows members of the posse that raided Wilbur Underhill and his gang in Shawnee on December 30, 1933. They included Agent R.H. Colvin, top left, Clarence Hurt, top right, and Jelly Bryce, kneeling right.
Wilbur Underhill

Wilbur Underhill fought the grim hand of death on Sunday morning, December 31, 1933. This appeared to be the end of his bloody trail of crime which raged across Oklahoma into Kansas and the foothills of Arkansas. He was now laying in a hospital bed in the Shawnee Municipal Hospital. His body was riddled with machine gun bullets and gunshot. He was guarded by three officers. At 1 A.M. Sunday, his condition was unchanged after a delirious afternoon. Miraculously, he was holding his own.

Eva Mae Nichols cut down in the machine gun barrage in the raid on the hideout at 606 west Dewey Street, was sinking lower early Sunday morning as death became certain. In the city jail, Underhill’s bride was expecting the death of her husband. And in another cell, laid Ralph Rowe, the fourth of the ill-fated party, recovering from bullet wounds in the arm and shoulder. His condition was considered not serious. Only Underhill’s bride was unscathed in the machine gun raid on the Dewey Street house shortly after 2 A.M. on Saturday, December 30.

Striking swiftly, a cordon of officers, led by R.H. Colvin, regional Department of Justice head; Frank Bryant, Shawnee night chief of police; and Frank Smith, a Department of Justice operative, closed in on the house. At the rear were Colvin and Smith, backed by Paul Hanson and K.D. Deaderick, federal operatives. Also present were Clarence Hurt, Mickey Bryan, and D.A. Brice of the Oklahoma City police.

Directly in front of the house and across the street was T.W. Birch, a federal operative, armed with a shotgun. Behind a tree in the parking to the east was George Kerr, Oklahoma County deputy sheriff. Bryant was stationed at the second tree and Don Stone, Oklahoma County deputy, was at a third tree. Bill Eads and John Adams, both Oklahoma County deputies, were stationed at a porch on the dwelling immediately east of the bandit nest.

The group in the rear stepped to a rear bedroom window and officers ordered Underhill to surrender. The bandit, preparing for bed, answered the order by seizing his guns and opening fire. As he whirled to shoot at officers, he was greeted with a machine gun blast and tear gas bombs.

The officers around the house opened fire as Underhill and Colvin shot at each other. Rowe was shot in bed and his wife jumped up. She was mowed down with a machine gun barrage. Hazel Underhill, escaped miraculously by dropping to the floor.

Underhill ran to the front door and out onto the porch in a hail of lead.  Bryant, Eads, Adams, and Stone sent a spray of bullets after the bandit, who stumbled to his feet and crawled. Birch fired with his shotgun.

Underhill, clad only in his underwear, regained his feet and staggered on to disappear in the dense fog between the row of houses to the west. He fell five times in the house and on the road after officers opened fire.

With augmented forces, the officers began combing the vicinity. Blood-hounds were brought from the state penitentiary.

At 7 A.M., the desperado was cornered. A wounded man in his underwear was reported seen entering a furniture store at 500 east Main Street. He had made his way there on foot despite his wounds. A squad of officers rushed into the store. They found Underhill in a weakened condition from loss of blood. Unarmed, he made no resistance. “I’m all shot up,” he said.

Whether Underhill ever made a statement about participating in the Union Station massacre at Kansas City, was unknown. It was reported he was questioned about it by officers but could not be confirmed.

The quartet seized in the raid arrived at the house only a short time before the raid, although they had rented the house for several weeks. Lessors of the house, who sublet the place, said they were approached by a man who gave his name as J.H. Reynolds. Deposits for utilities also were made in that name. Reynolds was the name used by Rowe.

Eva Mae Nichols, who was 33 years of age, was divorced from Bert Eppler of Seminole about six months earlier. She had been married to a man named Nichols before marrying Eppler. Her maiden name was Eva Mae Riley. For five years she was an operator in the Blue Bird beauty shop in Seminole.

The Seminole beauty parlor was used by Underhill frequently as a hideout. Underhill used the name of George Hickson while staying in Seminole. Rowe was a former convict who officers said was wanted on a kidnapping charge in Arkansas. He was also wanted in Ardmore for jumping bond.

The squadron of officers who seized Underhill at the furniture store included John Whalen, Everett Agee, Jack Roberts, Bill Eads, Sheriff Stanley Rogers, John Cassidy, and W.A. McKenzie of Shawnee.

Earlier, at the Dewey Street home, $5,300 in bonds were found in Underhill’s clothes. The bonds were issued by a Franklin Title and Trust company of Franklin, KY. They were in denominations of $1,000, $500, and $100.

Colvin, who returned to Shawnee Saturday night after going back to Oklahoma City, said he had no announcement to make regarding what would be done with Hazel Underhill, the bandit’s wife. Underhill, whose arrest was expected for weeks, was listed as a murderer, robber, and prison-breaker by the FBI.

After a series of crimes in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, he was often referred to by newspapers as the “Tri-state terror.” His identification marks included a gunshot scar on the back of his neck. Officers talked with certain members of the convict gang that broke out of the Lansing prison on Memorial Day with Underhill. They said Underhill was a wanton killer. It was said Underhill wanted to kill the Kansas prison warden who was kidnapped by the fugitive but was prevented from doing so by cooler headed members of the band. His crime spree started with an automobile theft in 1927.

He was arrested by Okmulgee police on January 7, 1927, on a charge of murder and robbery when he was accused of killing a drug store clerk. Escaping from jail, he was recaptured, tried and sentence to life imprisonment at McAlester, but escaped on July 14, 1931.

A sheriff’s force arrested him at Wichita, KS in August of 1931, on a murder charge relating to the slaying of a policeman. Again, he received a life sentence in the Kansas prison. He escaped on March 20, 1933, with 10 other convicts, coming to Oklahoma.

Since his last escape, Underhill had been suspected of “pulling” at least half of the bank robberies recorded in Oklahoma during 1933. His reputed exploits have supplanted the alleged activities of “Pretty Boy” Floyd, another notorious outlaw who lived in the state.

Souvenir snatchers and a mob of curious, old and young, raided the city’s most famous address, 606 west Dewey Street, all day Saturday. They wanted a first-hand view of the place where Wilbur Underhill started on the last leg of his lawless journey.

Spreading like wildfire, the news of the gun battle, which ended in Underhill’s capture and probable fatal wounding, sent crowds to the scene of the shooting which occurred in a foggy blackness only a few hours before. The end of one of crime’s most notorious careers was written in machine gun bullets.

Early in the morning, cars carrying inquisitive townspeople blocked traffic in front of the residence torn awry in the mad-dash the notorious bandit made from the house. Tear gas bombs were working overtime late Saturday afternoon and many an interested onlooker poked his nose through the window frames and came away wiping his eyes. Souvenirs and mementoes from the white cottage openly were confiscated by the crowd before adequate police protection could be summoned. Officers still were looking Saturday night for a fur coat left in the house by Underhill’s bride.

A ripple of laughter came from the crowd as a postman walked up and a little girl, perched on the porch, sang a verse of “Annie doesn’t live here anymore.”

At police headquarters, another curious crowd maintained an all-day vigil hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the major figures in the capture. Only officers and newspapermen were permitted to see Hazel Underhill, confined in the women’s ward of the city jail.

Onlookers at the city jail were given a glimpse of Ralph Rowe, Underhill’s companion, late in the afternoon when he was brought to jail from the city hospital by F.A. Budd, chief of police. He wore a suit of Underhill’s and was in his bare feet. He was whisked quickly into a private cell, his arm and shoulder in an improvised sling.

At the city hospital, the north end of the second-floor corridor was vacant, save for federal and other officers. A cord was stretched across the corridor. On the west side of the hall lay Underhill muttering deliriously. Across the hall was Eva Mae Nichols, grimly holding to her last thread of life. Her relatives formed a group outside her door.

Another group clustered around the scene of the final capture at the east Main Street furniture store, but the big crowd was at the Dewey Street residence most of the day.